Wednesday, 17 April 2013
Ding- dong the division lives on.
Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady of British politics and either a defining national icon or the national equivalent of a wicked stepmother has died aged 87; in death she continues to stir up controversy.
David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband heaped praise on her during a special debate in the House of Commons, the deputy PM and the leader of the opposition did so with some qualifications, but the tone was valedictory to a fault. President Obama called her a ‘defender of liberty’ and the Queen granted her a ceremonial funeral at St Paul’s, the first such honour given to a commoner since the death of Winston Churchill in 1965.
Opponents of Mrs Thatcher’s economic reforms greeted news of her death with popping champagne corks and impromptu street parties and the song ‘Ding-dong the witch is dead’ from the Wizard of Oz leapt to number tow in the charts on the back of her passing. Its rise was helped by the BBC, in one of its fits of absurd piety, refusing to play more than five seconds of the song, clearly unaware of the fact that nobody takes any notice of the charts these days and that Mrs T would have been delighted by her continued ability to wind up the left more than twenty years after leaving office.
Since the announcement of the death of the political figure who squatted over my adolescence like a toad clad in twin-set and pearls I have watched the growing word blizzard of commentary and mostly failed to find anything like enlightenment about her stature and likely legacy. The best I have been able to do is to grasp at the odd passing flake and try to understand its often confusing pattern.
The first of these is marked ‘division’; Margaret Thatcher was truly the Marmite prime minister, capable of inspiring fawning adulation or foaming hatred, but never bland indifference. In the Britain she created from 1979 onwards the winners won big and the losers lost everything, whole communities were battered to a pulp by the recession of the 1980’s and have never recovered.
The next word to emerge from the blizzard is ‘connect’, like or loath her Mrs Thatcher achieved effortlessly the holy grail of modern politics, making a genuine connection with the voting public. Largely, it must be said, through appealing to their basest instincts, greed is good, society is a hindrance; the individual matters more than the collective.
This, perhaps more than anything else, stands in the way of her being a truly ‘great’ leader, as opposed to a ruthlessly efficient and highly successful one. Anyone with the right amount of eloquence can appeal to the self interest of his or her chosen constituency, a truly great leader though appeals to the things that make people nobler rather than just richer.
The last and most controversial word to come whirling out of the maelstrom is ‘legacy’. This is where the real meat of the issue resides and even considering Mrs Thatcher’s legacy requires all sides to address some profoundly awkward truths.
The left have to swallow the bitter pill of accepting that given the parlous state of the British economy in the late seventies the rise of someone like Margaret Thatcher was inevitable. A Labour government, probably led by Denis Healy, would have had to do many of the things she did and deal with the resulting angst, although you imagine with a better grasp of the social consequences of their actions.
Her supporters on the right who still get all dewy eyed when they think of her rejection of consensus and dogged refusal to change course cannot avoid recognising that her leadership style damaged politics. The four men who have occupied Downing Street since are all, whether they admit to it or not, ‘heirs to Thatcher’.
A fact evidenced by their hysterical desperation not to seem weak, tendency to bludgeon the electorate over the head with ideas and policies long after they have passed their sell by date and their obsession with squashing any dissenting voices within their own party. What they lack is the one thing Mrs Thatcher had in abundance, conviction, however muddle-headed her ideas might have been they were her own rather than the product of a focus group.
The truth is that as a country we haven’t reached an understanding of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy and won’t do for some time. At the moment enemies and supporters alike have turned her into an assemblage of quotes wrapped in an easily imitable voice, making her a heroine or a pantomime villain depending on their particular stance.
The real work of understanding how she changed this country and whether the results were harmful or beneficial will be the work of history and take decades to complete. History, of course, unlike the Iron Lady, is very much for turning. Facts not feelings are its stock in trade and its judgements are seldom kind.